Vaudeville was popularized in North America in the 1880s and lasted through the 1930s. When watching a vaudeville performance, audiences could expect to see acrobats, musicians, dancers, clowns, jugglers, and more. It has its origins in freak shows, minstrelsy, and burlesque. During the late 1800s and early 1930s, it was one of the most popular types of entertainment in America.
Vaudeville was a style of theatre that combined multiple acts into an entertaining and farcical performance. Viewers could expect to see everything from singers and musicians to acrobats and comedians.
During the height of its popularity, it was meant for all-male audiences and was quite obscene. Usually, there were more than twelve acts per show, providing audiences with a wide range of entertainment. The best was always saved for last, and the shows went on for hours. Today, scholars look back on vaudeville as symbolic of the growing cultural diversity in the United States.
It should be noted that many vaudeville performances included cultural and racially insensitive subject matter that would likely not be tolerated today. It was not free from prejudice by any means. But, it did provide audiences with new insights into the complexities of contemporary life in America.
Vaudeville began to decline during the 1920s, with lower-priced cinema becoming more readily available. Films were first presented in vaudeville halls in the United States.
Many performers left the theatre for easier jobs as well. Some made forays into the film industry, such as Bob Hope and Fanny Brice. Usually, the shift of New York City’s Palace Theatre from vaudeville to cinema permanently is considered the “death blow” that singled the end of vaudeville. It occurred in November of 1932.
Benjamin Franklin Kieth: Father of Vaudeville
Kieth earned his name as the father of American Vaudeville in the late 1800s. He established a one-of-a-kind museum in Massachusetts featuring acts that would become common to Vaudeville performances, such as the now insensitive-sounding “Baby Alice the Midget Wonder.” He went on to establish the Bijou Theatre, where strictly enforced policies of cleanliness and lack of vulgarity led to his success. He is cited as a skilled producer, combining “high” and “low” theatre into one appealing collection of acts. He used new and familiar acts, inspiring audience members from all walks of life to attend his theatre.
Inspired by his success, similar theatre, known as “palaces,” began popping up around the country. By the late 1800s, there were collections of theatres around the country. For a period of time, Kieth operated what was known as a “continuous.” That is a performance that ran 12 hours a day, providing constant entertainment. This allowed as many different people as possible to attend the shows.
Vaudeville left an interesting and complicated legacy. It was key to the success of later radio, film, and television productions and the broader development of comedy. The structure of one host introducing multiple acts has been used since. For example, in The Ed Sullivan Show and Late Night with David Letterman.
Also of note is the popularity of words like “flop” and “gag,” both of which originated with vaudeville.
Example of Vaudeville Theatre
The Passing Show
The Passing Show was a musical, theatrical production that was presented in 1894 by George Lederer. It was one of the earliest musical revues on Broadway and helped to inspire that which followed. The performance included songs like ‘Old Before His Time’ and ‘The Fellow That Played the Drum.’
Vaudeville left its greatest mark on film and cinema. The “palaces” that once hosted Vaudeville entertainment were transitioned into cinemas. Additionally, the legacy of Vaudeville lived on in the form of late-night comedy and variety shows.
Film and radio killed Vaudeville. These cheaper and easier-to-access forms of entertainment eventually led to the death of Vaudeville. Often, the shift of New York City’s Palace Theatre from vaudeville to cinema in 1932 is cited as the official date that Vaudeville “died.”
The purpose was to entertain. Vaudeville performances were crafted so that they would appeal to as many different types of people as possible. They brought “high” and “low” entertainment together as well as the upper, middle, and lower classes.
Some of the major stars of Vaudeville included Will Rogers, Bob Hope, Burns & Allen, and Fanny Brice.
Related Literary Terms
- Farce: a genre of comedic literature. It uses exaggerated and outrageous situations to create humor and make the audience laugh.
- Satire: used to analyze behaviors to make fun of, criticize, or chastise them in a humorous way.
- Comedy: a humorous and entertaining genre of literature, film, and television.
- Aphorism: are short, serious, humorous, and philosophical truths about life.
- Black Humor: a literary device that’s used in all forms of literature in order to discuss taboo subjects in a less distressing way.
- Play: a form of writing for theatre. It is divided into acts and scenes.
- Act: a primary division of a dramatic work, like a play, film, opera, or other performance. The act is made up of shorter scenes.
- Read: American Vaudeville
- Watch: Historic Footage—Vaudeville Acts 1898 to 1910
- Watch: Vaudeville PBS Documentary